To love a murderer on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, & every day after

Working at the Denver Street School has ruined me for murderers: I’ve come to realize I love them and it regularly breaks my heart.

A few years back, my vice-principal and I started¬†a running text chain. Some days it’s a mix of teaching memes and funny student quotes, but there¬†are other days where we somberly exchange¬†news articles with headlines written about our¬†students.

This year alone we’ve exchanged two articles.¬†The first explained that a prior student had been arrested for killing his three-month old daughter (accidentally or not, we’re still not sure). The second was a list of criminal charges a student from two years ago is facing. As I write this, he is awaiting arraignment for nine felony charges– including first-degree murder, first-, second-, and third-degree assault, and menacing with a deadly weapon, among others.

Fuller and my weird text chain began in 2014¬†with information regarding the murder of one of our then-current students. It was reinstated four months after Johnny’s death when we exchanged news articles¬†about the¬†arrest of another then-current student who had tried meth, then proceeded to attempt to kill a police officer while under the influence.

I’m far from a news junkie, but when I see my kiddos’ faces on news channels or in my Facebook feed, I can’t help but sit enveloped in the articles and subsequent comments from the public.

“Let him burn in hell.”

“Public execution. Maybe even firing squad.”

“A disgrace.”

“A waste of space.”

These are the words that strangers have said about my students, my babies.

And every. single. time. that I’ve gotten sucked into the wormhole of comments from the public, I’ve sat, shaking as¬†I¬†read them¬†through tears.

In those moments, I know I’m crying for my students, for their victims, for each of the families and the various communities involved in the incident. I cry because I don’t understand how my students have come to make the choices they’ve made. And no matter how hard I try, I know I’ll never be able to reconcile the reality of the brokenness of this world in my heart.

But just as I’ve cried tears of sadness, I’ve also¬†screamed in rage. In those moments I’m unbelievably angry at my students for what they’ve done, for who they’ve allowed themselves to become. As time progresses, that¬†anger¬†subsides though, often leaving my heart puzzled.

The days go on, but at least for a little while my students’ faces stay in my news feed attached to those horrid headlines; follow-up articles are published, and with them, more horrid comments from people whom I would argue need better hobbies.

As I scroll through the articles and read the death threats and aggressive comments about the students I love, every ounce of me wants to scream back,

“You don’t know them! You don’t see their struggles! You don’t know the abuse they’ve suffered at home, the pain they carry in their hearts, or the ways they have been set up to fail in this world since they were in their mother’s wombs!”¬†

Let me be clear.

I have no desire to make excuses for my students or their actions, but in those moments I feel trapped between a rock and a hard place– between the seemingly reasonable expectations of human decency and the calling to love and defend the students Jesus has placed in my care.

Thus, in those moments of blinding, complex sorrow and rage, I sit, confused. Feeling a little bit helpless. Saddened by the fact that the only thing I can do is pray and schedule a visit at the county jail to see the students I love.

Because that’s just it. I love my kids. I will love my kids no matter what they do, no matter who they become. And I wish I could convince the rest of the world to do so as well.

Maybe I’m blind or naive, but those students? The ones in Fuller and my text-chain, in your Facebook feed? They’re human. They’re kids¬†I’ve played football with at lunch. I’ve read their stories in my English classes– stories where their “fictional characters” struggle to be men and women of character in gang and drug infested worlds, in “fictional settings” that are¬†strikingly similar to those of their author’s.

I’ve taken these students on leadership retreats to the mountains. I’ve watched them build snowmen and sled and giggle like little kids.¬†I’ve watched them cry out of frustration when they can’t figure out their math homework and literally¬†run screaming down the halls with excitement when they pass a test.

These young people who have made horrid choices– either one incidentally or as a string of other poor choices– these people who have taken another’s life?

They’re young men and women I honestly trust with mine.

They’re sweet and goofy; they’re so much smarter than the choices they’ve made or the stigmas the world placed on them before (or after) they ended up in the orange jumpsuits they now wear.

It’s because of this that I’ve spent several of my planning periods this year¬†tracking some of my favorite former students through the Colorado judicial system. Last week as I waited for the Denver county inmate search website to load, a meme popped up in that text chain, and I couldn’t help but laugh at just how weird this job of mine is.

As I stared at the slowly loading page, the comments from old news articles flashed through my mind, as did this old snapchat– a picture of the student I was trying to locate–

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In that moment, I glanced around my empty classroom, then down at the Bible on my desk and I was reminded that loving murderers probably isn’t a common aspect of most people’s jobs; in fact, outside of DSS, it’s probably rather rare. And outside of the relationships with Jesus that our school is built upon, I doubt that it’s possible.

But isn’t that just it?

Jesus had a heart for murderers.¬†That’s what Easter is about.

The fact that King of the Universe came down to save His people from themselves and the sin that entangles them even though we couldn’t deserve it less.

Our perfect, benevolent Jesus came to rescue His people in love and restore them to relationship with the Father, even though they shouted, “Let Him be crucified!”, “I do not know Him!”, and “Do not release Him, the innocent, but Barabbas, the robber!”¬†just days earlier.

Jesus came to save us even though we shout those words at Him and at each other with our lips, actions, and inactions every day.

We are murderers.

Each and every one of us.

And if we refuse to acknowledge that truth in our pride or arrogance, our own virtue or religiousity, then I firmly believe that we’ll miss out on the heart of Jesus.

If we can’t look at our sin, our own capability and guilt of murder against our King– and those created in His image– then we are in danger of missing so much of the beauty of Jesus and what He has done for us, even though we are so undeserving.

May we become a people who look upon the crucifix with a more full understanding of our sin, so that we might relish in the goodness and love of the truth that followed three days later– the words that continue to shake me to my core this morning:¬†“He is not here; Christ has risen, just as He said He would.” (Matthew 28:6)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

(Romans 5:6-8)

 

“My People” — Redemption in Poetry on Inauguration Day

My favorite poem hangs in my bedroom just above an old, olive green foot locker and to the right of my Abuelo’s guitar. Even though I’ve been known to jokingly call Mary Oliver my “spirit animal” and I’ve had a Shakespeare anthology in my purse for the last few weeks, the poem isn’t either of theirs.

It’s an unassuming poem typed on regular¬†white printer paper; its edges are frayed from IMG_8563.JPGbeing tucked into my journal as I’ve moved and traveled around the world over the last several years. I’ve become accustomed to carrying it with me because it speaks so deeply to both my heart and my roots.

This poem was handed in as a homework assignment four years ago by the only student I’ve ever almost had to call the cops on.¬†When she wrote it, this student was fifteen and ohhhh, she was one of the toughest girls I’d ever met.¬†At the time, I was a young, incredibly naive teacher and my classroom antics regularly¬†illicited looks from her that could’ve killed. For two years, we battled each other– one strong willed Latina against another. And not long after my student handed in this poem, life became unmanageable and she had to leave high school for reasons beyond her control.

But several years later, she has reenrolled at the Street School for this semester. Today, she sat across from me at the long table in my classroom, her nose buried in a book and a familiar, sly smile on her face. She’s a different woman today than when I met her five years ago, when she wrote this poem in sophomore English, or even¬†two years ago when she and I finally called a “truce” after finding common ground in tragedy at DSS.

Today when I looked into her eyes during English, I saw the softness and a hope that only a relationship with Christ can bring, along with a renewed passion for education and a sense of maturity brought on by a few difficult years out of school.

Having her back in my classroom after watching her fight for her future these last few years has proven to me that she is my hero. She is hardworking and determined, fire-y, yet kind, emotionally strong and incredibly hopeful. She is everything that makes me proud to be LatinaРthe great-granddaughter of immigrants who came to America from Mexico in a cattle car, dreaming of a better life for their children, for my father, for me.

When I looked into her eyes today, I could still see the sorrow that comes with being separated from her family back in MexicoРa sense of sorrow that has been there since we met. But above that, I can see the story of redemption the Lord is writing for her, her family, and the family she will likely one day mother. Through education and grace, Jesus is bringing hope for a future different than the fearful past she has lived.

I don’t know that there has ever been a more pertinent time for her poetic words to be shared than on this Inauguration Day. These are the words of a once terrified, angry young woman– one who hid behind an incredibly hard exterior because she saw fear as weakness, and weakness an impossibility if she and her family were going to survive in America. These are the words of a young woman finding her way through unspeakable circumstances, strife, and loss, yet still choosing to¬†fight¬†for possibility because she knows the God who fights for her.

So on this day, whether you’re celebrating a political victory or mourning what seems like a societal loss, I pray that the Lord grants you an eternal perspective today, as well as the grace to love our sojourning brothers and sisters well.¬†May we love and care for our fellow sojourners, since we ourselves are exactly that.

My People

“Wake up, listen to the Mexican music,

It’s not made of tunes and rhythms.

Listen closely.

It’s the person in your yard working hard, making noise,

He who woke up early to feed his kids and didn’t have time to worry about himself.

The sweat on his forehead is honor, the dirt on his hands effort,

The money in his pocket is an everyday goal and freedom is just a word.

Fallen dreamers in the middle of a desert just to chase the uncatchable dream–

“The land of the free”.

Sunburns tell stories,

Cries tell the worries of my people.

Everyday they struggle, living in fear:

Sirens,

Bosses,

Discrimination for being a different color and race.

These people think we came to take their jobs,

The jobs that always pay my people less.

Raising their children in what they would never imagined their home place,

My people saying, “I’m Latino and not Mexican,” ’cause they’re scared to represent.

The day will come when we can get along.

It might be months, years, or even decades,

But we will rise through.

Someday, they will stop labeling my people criminals just for being dreamers…”

“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”

(Hebrews 13:1-2)

“Oh Holy Night, the weary soul rejoices…”

I’ve spent the morning curled up on the Yarrow House sofa here in Denver. Six different versions of “Oh Holy Night” have looped on my Spotify as I’ve sat, staring vacantly at our Christmas tree and the Bible in my lap. No matter how long I look at either, I’m unable to reconcile myself to the joy that either thing should bring me in this season of Advent.

It was on this day two years ago that one of my Street School students was killed in gang warfare. And even though it seems like two years have passed, it was just last night that we received what I still can’t bring myself to believe is the final word that four of my loved ones in Alaska likely won’t return home after their plane went missing on a flight from our village to Anchorage Wednesday.

On December 10th, a day that has already been agonizing these last two years, I admittedly have been struggling with feeling more helpless and hopeless than ever. I long to be able to fix something. Anything. I long to be 3,500 miles away from this sofa, embracing my dear friends in Port Alsworth whose lives have been forever changed by a routine commute that turned into all of our worst nightmare.

My heart breaks more and more for those I love with every text, phone call, and update I receive because I know there is not a single one of us from that beautiful little bush village unscathed by this tragedy. Within that heartbreak I have heard the screams and cries of my friends who have lost members of their family and there simply aren’t words for, or to say in response to, that kind of suffering or pain.

Even though I am in the city where Johnny died, physically close to those affected by that tragedy two years ago, I am incapable of doing anything to change the situation here either. We will never be able to bring him back, answer the still-outstanding questions, or heal the residual pain his family, my students, and our Street School staff still feel.

As my mind has swung between these tragedies, desperately trying to make sense of something, the only conclusion I’ve reached is this: Never in my life have I felt such a deep ache for Someone to save me or the people I love from the pain and brokenness of this world. Never in my life have I longed so deeply for a Savior.¬†

While my heart can’t seem to consider celebrating anything right about now, I know the truth: we will soon celebrate the fact that our Savior has already come.

The Bible in my lap, my brothers and sisters (near and far) who have prayed and cried with me this week, the song that keeps repeating itself over my computer speakers, and even the silly cultural tradition of sticking a dying tree in our living room and wrapping it in lights point me back to that truth–

Our Savior has come. Christ came, incarnate as a helpless baby, and died as the Most Powerful King to save us from both our sin and our sorrow. Past, present, and future.

Two thousand years ago He became Emmanuel and Emmanuel He is still.
God with us.
God with all who mourn.
God with all who weep.
God wrapping His arms around every person who knows and loves Port Alsworth, the Longerbeams, the Bloms, and Johnny’s family.
God indwelling in those of us who call Him Abba, Father.
God who came to rescue.
God who will make all things new.

And thus I proclaim over my own trembling heart and that of those around me, that even as the news we receive today and this week will likely worsen by earthly standards, the good news that Christ has come for us and can wrap us in His arms now and for eternity is. indeed. Good. News.

Even if everything else falls apart, His sovereign plan, loving promise, Good News, and ultimate sacrifice remains the same– it is the only Good News we could ever truly need.

“Oh holy night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees, Oh heart the angel voices
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine, Oh night, Oh night divine

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name!

Christ is the Lord, Oh praise His name forever!
His power and glory evermore proclaim

Fall on your knees, hear the angel voices,
Oh night, Oh night, Oh night divine.”

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Oh, Jesus. Make our hearts believe. Make our hearts believe while we are here on our knees…

~~~

If you, like me, wish you could do something but don’t know what to do, you can donate to any of the Go Fund Me accounts below. The first two are to help cover memorial service/funeral costs for the Blom and Longerbeam families. The last is to help some of the Bloms’ dear¬†friends make it to Alaska for Scott, Zach, and Kaitlyn’s celebration of life.

Blom family memorial service / out of state family travel expenses

Kyle’s memorial service / family travel expenses

Help send the Brent/ Boe families to Alaska

How WAS my day? [A call to prayer]

“Woah… Hey… How was your day?” My friend probably could’ve spared herself the question. I’m fairly certain the glazed over, crazy lady look in my eyes was a dead give away that today was, well… a¬†day.

I let my backpack slide off my shoulder and onto the floor as I stared vacantly at my feet, trying to find the words to articulate how my day was.

Nothing seemed right.

Saying,¬†“Good! My toughest group of kids finally fell in love with our novel and we read forty pages in class!” seemed like a really out of sorts introduction to the sentence that would’ve followed it: “Oh, and before 9 AM, I saw a bullet hole in one of my student’s legs from where he was shot this weekend.” Or, I suppose I could’ve said, “My day was a mixed bag, but thankfully I escaped to Cork & Coffee after school to lesson plan. Things had just calmed down when I overheard an altercation down the street and then had a man run toward me shouting, ‘Did you see a guy in a black hoodie?! He just stabbed someone!’ moments before an ambulance pulled up to take the victim¬†to the hospital. So, that was weird.”

But to simply say that my day was a mixed bag would also graze over the fact that I spent two different passing periods today comforting various girls whose 17 year old cousin/friend/ex-boyfriend had been shot and killed late last week… And each of those tender moments had a fairly significant impact on the way my day had gone, so excluding them feels weird.

So, how was my day? Chaotic? But somehow, not really. In fact, it was a fairly orderly day by DSS standards.

Good? Meh. I wouldn’t go that far.

Hard?¬†Well, yes and no. After all, I’m far more “used to” (or rather desensitized to)¬†gunshot wounds and stabbings than I probably should be.

As I struggled for words to explain the rough edges of my day, it hit me that I honestly don’t¬†have room to speak negatively about the way today went either. I mean, we made great strides in English; for the first time in my teaching career my kids didn’t want to stop reading AND¬†they even wrote a two paragraph summary without gasping and splaying themselves against my classroom wall in disbelief that I could ask them to do such a thing. (You may think I’m being dramatic. I’m not. The wall splaying really, truly happened last Tuesday.) Oh, and my college and career guest speaker this morning? He was a hit! (Granted, his first few words when he walked into my classroom this morning were, “Uh, I think I just saw a drug deal go down in the parking lot across the street…” But such is Street School life.) Then there’s the fact that my art students crushed their assignment for the day and a few even stayed after school to continue their work. So. many. good things happened today in the academic realm. Yet that doesn’t negate the pain in my heart that caused my wide-eyed stare.

Thus, I return to my friend’s question: how was my day? After a few hours of trying to find words to explain the jumble that is my short-term memory,¬†I’m essentially still without a verdict.¬†Maybe that’s because I don’t think¬†there’s a word in the English language that aptly describes what life as a Street School teacher is (or isn’t) or how our days with our students go.

The only way I can put it is that being back at the Street School is “all the things”; it’s academic celebrations with tears sprinkled throughout, bookended by the agonizing realities of gang warfare and darkness that my students come from each morning and return to each afternoon. Yet somehow it’s all covered in the glorious Hope of Christ that things can be different if my students come to Him. It’s weird, but it’s beautiful in the same breath.

Unlike most things I write, this post doesn’t contain a lesson from Jesus or a nice tied together ending.¬†At least, not yet.¬†And although it most certainly exists within the reality of my job, I swear I don’t write this for shock value.

No, I’m writing to give you a window into the reality of my students’ lives and to ask you to partner with me this year in prayer. Theirs is a reality that exists right within the heart of Denver and every city like it. A reality that can be found mere houses or blocks away from where the majority of you are reading this in your¬†quiet, violence-free homes on the outskirts of suburbia. That quiet? That end-of-the-day peace that you’re probably experiencing right now? That is not the reality for many of my students.¬†But oh, how I long for that to change.

So would you¬†join me and our mildly shell-shocked Street School staff as we enter back into our students’ lives and pray for and with them¬†this school year?

Would you join us in praying for:

  • Opportunities to share the gospel with our students. Very few of them would consider Christ to be the Lord of their lives, and even fewer have heard of the way He loves them with His “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (The Jesus Storybook Bible). Pray that our students would be open to His Love and Truth. Pray that they would allow themselves to be swept off their feet by the sweet Savior Who has already come¬†for them.
  • The Peace of Christ to reign in this city. Unless you’re weird like me and spend your free time reading graffiti on highway underpasses, it’s easy to miss the fact that there’s a thriving gang culture here in Denver. Due to a handful of recent events within a few local gangs, there has been a flare up of violence in our city. Pray that redemption and peace would prevail over retaliation. Pray for my students to have an iota of forethought and not get themselves involved in risky or violent situations.
  • Spiritual¬†eyes for our staff to see what really matters. Sometimes that really, truly means English homework and sometimes that means setting aside our lesson plans and engaging in¬†soul care instead of vocabulary lists. Pray that we, as a staff, would be loving, intentional, and wise in all of our interactions with our students. ¬†

I’m eternally grateful for the love, prayers, and support you’ve covered me in these last few years as I’ve done life everywhere from the inner city of Denver to the very ends of the earth. As I seem to say at the beginning of every school year, I know the Lord is going to do miraculous, mind-boggling, earth shattering things this year. He has always been faithful to exceed even my biggest expectations for a school year and¬†He has graciously called all of us to be a part of His plan.

Thank you in advance for joining in on what Jesus is doing in this beautiful city through prayer.

May the glory be to God– in the midst of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this school year.

xo,

Kace